An interview with the woman who represents 3.5 million of Bangladesh’s female garment workers.
On the three-month anniversary of the collapse of a clothing factory at Rana Plaza, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, that killed more than 1,100 workers—the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry—politicians and international retailers alike have begun to respond to the public outcry for improved labor conditions. On July 15 the Bangladeshi Parliament approved a new labor law that strengthens workers’ rights; the week before, 17 North American companies—including Wal-Mart, Gap, and Target—announced a plan to improve safety standards. But the initiatives to emerge from the rubble are just a starting point, says one of the country’s most outspoken workers’-rights advocates, Kalpona Akter.
As the founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, Akter represents the 3.5 million women who are the engines behind the country’s biggest business. The mission, for her, is deeply personal: after her father became sick and could no longer support her family, then-12-year-old Akter began earning $6 a month for 400 hours of backbreaking work in the factories. She kept up the struggle for years, until she was fired in 2000 for attempting to organize some of her co-workers into a union. Akter spoke with The Daily Beast about the underbelly of some of the world’s biggest clothing brands and why American women should be paying attention.